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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Vaudeville


  Tyne Daly and Naomi O'Connell/ Ph: Johan Persson

Terrence McNally's 1996 Tony Award-winning Master Class is not so much a play, but more of a barnstorming showcase for its leading lady. Though five other characters are listed as part of the dramatis personae, it's basically a one-woman show about the legendary opera diva Maria Callas (played here by Tyne Daly), the greatest sopranos of her era, who burned herself out while still in her 40s.

Though Callas' story is as dramatic as any of the operas in which she appeared and could provide material for several plays (though spare us any more like Martin Sherman's lamentable Onassis), McNally has chosen, as his springboard, the Julliard School of music's master classes Callas gave in 1971.

The structure is simple enough: Callas arrives for her public tutorials, talks a great deal about an artist's attention to detail, the need for a personal identity, and the importance of suffering for one's vocation in order to do justice the operatic repertoire's more heavyweight roles, such as Bellini's Norma and Verdi's Lady Macbeth.

Three talented students – two sopranos and a tenor – are the masochistic recipients of la divina's blisteringly honest comments, with the tenor, who impresses with his powerful rendering of Puccini's "Recondite Armonia" from act one of Tosca, coming off best. The women, on the other hand, feel the full force of Callas' bitchy barbs while at the same time providing her with an excuse to relive two of her greatest triumphs at La Scala, in Milan with La Sonnambula and Macbeth.

The device also gives McNally an opportunity briefly to move away from the Julliard's auditorium to Greece where Callas, playing both herself and Aristotle Onassis, the shipping magnate with whom she fell desperately in love, gives us a highly personal glimpse of the tortured nature of their romance.

Another opportunity for a second bleeding chunk of biography occurs in act two when, prior to her meeting with Onassis in 1959, she was married to Giovanni Meneghini, a millionaire industrialist 10 years her senior and under whose guidance and support she would become the most famous opera star in the world.

The problem with these twin diversions is they neither satisfy those members of the audience unfamiliar with Callas' back story nor add anything new to what most of her admirers already know about her tempestuous rise and fall. 

This is not the first time McNally, himself an avid operaphile, has featured Callas in a play. In The Lisbon Traviata, written in 1990, a pirated recording of her legendary performance in Lisbon as Verdi's heroine Violetta provides the soundtrack to the disintegration of a gay relationship.

The play is both hilarious and moving and, apart from its problematic, operatic ending, altogether better than Master Class. What gives the later piece the reputation it has is (apart from its Tony Award) its roster of leading ladies it has attracted, including Zoe Caldwell, Faye Dunaway, Patti LuPone and Daly. 

Though I believe Daly to be a better actress than LuPone (both have played Mama Rose in Gypsy, and Daly was far superior), Lu Pone conveyed Callas' glamour, sophistication and temperament more convincingly. There's something coarse and common about Daly's interpretation, qualities that made her Rose so memorable. But Callas, despite some foul language McNally has her speak, was classier than that. Where Lupone trumps Daly is in the star wattage she managed to exude – an ingredient the text hungers for.

That said, there's much to admire and enjoy in Daly's performance. She does everything right except convey the essence of overbearing super diva-dom. I suspect she's basically far too nice a person for that.

Apart from the character of the stagehand (Gerard Carey), a disrespectful oaf whose attitude and incompetence would have had him fired on his first day at work, the rest of the supporting cast, including Jeremy Cohen as Callas' piano accompanist, do really well within the two dimensions they're asked to inhabit.

Stephen Wadsworth's direction draws every ounce of theatricality the occasion offers. It's an enjoyable evening. But lightweight.


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